Microsoft has standardised the length of time its products will be supported, aiming to help businesses and consumers make plans regarding upgrades.

The new support lifecycles, which came into effect on Tuesday, replace a variety of plans for different products, with broad guidelines defined in terms of years.

For business and development software, mainstream support — the kinds of support customers usually receive when they buy the product — will be available for five years from the date of a product’s general availability. Customers will have the option of buying extended support during the two years following the availability of mainstream support.

For most consumer software and hardware, mainstream support will be available for at least five years from the product’s general availability date. However, consumer applications that come out in a new version each year, such as Encarta and Money, will receive support for just three years. In addition, online self-help support will be available for at least eight years for most products.

Meanwhile, Microsoft will maintain product newsgroups, where users trade tips, for “as long as they’re still interested”, said Andy Erlandson, a director in Microsoft’s product support services division.

Support for some products may be extended beyond those periods, based on customer demand for support, and Microsoft may also extend the support term for certain large customers. Microsoft partners, such as value-added resellers and consulting companies, may also offer support for longer periods of time.

In the past, Microsoft has offered support on a variety of different terms. For example, for its development tools, until recently, it offered to licence holders “N minus 2” support, which meant free support for the current version of the software as well as the two previous versions. Many other Microsoft software products were supported on a similar model.

The change will be a benefit to many businesses, which in some past cases have not known when support for their software would end.

“Enterprises couldn’t plan,” said Tom Bittman, an analyst at research firm Gartner. Support policies defined by a number of versions of a product were not clear enough, he said.

“Version is a very fungible term… it wasn’t something anyone could look at and say, ‘I know exactly what they mean’,” Bittman said.

The new program is intended only for current and future products, according to Microsoft. Users of past products can continue to check Microsoft’s website for support terms.

Product support periods are defined by quarter, and Microsoft will provide support through the quarter in which the period ends, Erlandson said. For example, for an enterprise product released in February 2002, the mainstream support period would end on 31 March 2007. Customers will be able to find the end date of a support period for a particular product by checking Microsoft’s website.